Olof Palme, Sweden’s tragic political figure

Charismatic and controversial: ill-fated Swedish politician Olof Palme (1927-1986) in 1967

Sweden’s best-known politician, Social Democratic Prime Minister Olof Palme was assassinated under mysterious circumstances on February 28th, 1986 in his home town of Stockholm.

It’s considered the most relevant murder in the nation’s history since the shooting of King Gustav III (1746-1792) by noblemen who opposed his increasingly absolutist governance.

He was born into a wealthy family on January 30th, 1927, the youngest child of Gunnar Palme (1886-1934), a businessman of Dutch ancestry, and Elisabeth von Knieriem (1890-1972), a refugee from Russia with a Baltic-German background.

A sickly child with much time to read, Palme received his first education from private tutors at home and learned German, English and French. He then studied at one of Sweden’s few residential high schools and passed the university entrance examination with good grades at the age of 17.

In January 1945, towards the end of World War II, in which his homeland had remained neutral, Palme was drafted into an old artillery regiment. He finished his compulsory military service in March 1947.

Palme enrolled at Stockholm University right away, gaining extensive academic credit rather quickly. At the same time he expressed a strong desire to study in the United States.

Before going abroad, he attended an event that would mark his political views decisively: a debate on taxes between the Social Democratic dialectologist and Minister of Finance Ernst Wigforss (1881–1977), the Conservative career politician Jarl Hjalmarson (1904-1993) and the Liberal publisher Elon Andersson (1891-1954).

Through the mediation of the Lutheran Church, he received a scholarship from the American Scandinavian Foundation to attend a private liberal Protestant arts school, Kenyon College in Ohio, graduating with a BA in economics and political science in 1948.

The months Palme spent afterwards in America, hitchhiking through thirty-four states and sometimes taking odd jobs, made him realize how wide the income inequality was, which he interpreted as class divide, and the extent of racism.

Back in Europe, he joined the Swedish Social Democratic Party (Sveriges Socialdemokratiska Arbetar Partiet, SAP) in 1949 and got involved with the Swedish National Union of Students while studying law at his alma mater, from which he graduated in 1951.

A trip in 1953 to India, Ceylon, Burma and Indonesia, all of which had recently gained independence as well as to Singapore, which was about to be granted self-government, and still war-ravaged Japan opened his eyes to the consequences of colonial rule and aggressive Nationalism.

After being recruited later that year as personal secretary by then Social Democratic Prime Minister Tage Erlander (1901-1985), his rise was unstoppable.

Since 1955 on the board of the SAP’s Youth League, Palme entered the lower house of the Riksdag, the still bicameral Parliament, in 1958 and joined the government in 1963 as a minister without portfolio.

In 1965 he advanced to the post of Minister of Communication and since 1967 headed the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs, whose name changed to Ministry of Education and Research in 1968.

Palme succeeded Erlander as SAP leader and as Prime Minister when he finally stepped down after 23 years in October 1969, one of the longest tenures in any democracy.

Soon afterwards his strong criticism of Washington’s involvement in the Vietnam War (1955-1975) and his acceptance of US Army deserters who sought refuge in Sweden led to strained bilateral relations.

Nevertheless, Palme denied those approximately 800 US citizens official political refugee status, saying that one couldn’t be a refugee from a free country.

He believed in a strong society in which full employment and the public sector were the two most important means to increase equality between different social groups.

Palme defended the concept of a general welfare policy: everybody, regardless of their resources, should benefit from the system. This would maintain solidarity and the will to pay taxes, and also help to prevent the rich from obtaining private solutions out of reach of the poor.

Under his rule an ambitious redistributive program was carried out, with special help provided to the disabled, immigrants from all over the globe, the low paid, single-parent families and the old.

As the role of the state was enlarged even more, taxation rose from being fairly low to the highest levels in the West. The top marginal tax rate peaked at the end of the 1970s at approximately 87%.

His drive to greatly expand labor union influence on private ownership engendered significant hostility from the organized Swedish business community.

As an outspoken supporter of gender equality, Palme gave a feminist speech called «The Emancipation of Man» in June 1970 in Stockholm and in June 1975 attended the first World Conference on Women, held by the United Nations (UN) in Mexico City.

That year Palme replaced the 1809 Instrument of Government (at the time the second oldest Constitution in the world) with a new one, officially establishing parliamentary democracy.

He abolished a de jure monarchic autocracy, including Cabinet meetings chaired by King Carl XVI Gustaf (born 1946), who had only recently ascended the throne. Basically Palme stripped the Royals of all formal political powers.

While he condemned Moscow’s satellites in Eastern Europe, he provided financial support for Cuba and the leftist guerrillas in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

The 1976 general election resulted in the defeat of the Social Democrats after 44 years in power, though while in opposition Palme continued to be very active and maintained his own, very particular pacifist stance.

In 1979 he served as President of the Nordic Council, the official body for inter-parliamentary cooperation between Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden as well as the autonomous areas of the Faroe Islands, Greenland and the Åland Islands.

From 1979 to 1980, after the SALT II treaty was signed in Vienna between the United States and the Soviet Union, Palme chaired the newly founded Independent Committee on Disarmament in Geneva.

He also acted as UN special envoy to mediate in the war between Iran and Iraq (1980-88), which ultimately ended after Tehran accepted a brokered ceasefire long after his death.

The Three Mile Island accident in 1979, a partial meltdown of reactor number 2 at a nuclear generating station in Pennsylvania, had a great impact in Sweden.

Palme pushed the successful 1980 referendum to have all nuclear reactors removed by 2010, an ongoing and increasingly controversial process due to the greenhouse effect caused by other sources of energy.

During his second term in office from 1982 to 1986, Sweden’s economy was in bad shape. Therefore Palme pursued a «third way,» designed not only to stimulate investment, production and employment but also to face the growing burden of foreign debt and imbalance between payments and budget deficits.

This involved «equality of sacrifice,» whereby wage restraint would be accompanied by increases in subsidies and allowances as well as further selective tax increases.

Walking home without a bodyguard from a cinema around midnight with his second wife Lisbeth (1931-2018), with whom he had three sons, Palme was gunned down and his spouse slightly injured.

Christer Pettersson (1947-2004), a criminal who had previously served jail time for manslaughter, was convicted of the murder in July 1989 and sentenced to life imprisonment.

However, the conviction was overturned in an appeals court that October on the grounds that no murder weapon or plausible motive had been discovered. Pettersson was even awarded about 50,000 US dollars in compensation.

Another suspect, Victor Gunnarsson (1953-1993), questioned multiple time and released, was the victim of a revenge homicide related to a love triangle in North Carolina.

An investigation into the killing continued in the ensuing decades, and in 2020 a Swedish prosecutor announced that there was “reasonable evidence” to conclude that Stig Engström (1934-2000) was the assailant.

Engström, described as a “disappointed man” who supposedly disagreed with Palme’s policies, was present at the shooting and had access to the type of weapon used. However, since he had committed suicide 20 years ago, no charges would be filed.

Palme was often described as a revolutionary reformist and self-identified as a democratic socialist. Although an aggressive agitator who preferred challenging terminology, he was also a passionate and dedicated person who didn’t deserve such a tragic fate.


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